Should National Conferences of Bishops Have Power?

65th General Congregation
November 12, 1963

Three cardinals of the United States took the floor of the ecumenical council to express views ranging from outright opposition to support of a move to give binding power to decisions of episcopal bodies such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference.

The three cardinals addressed the council Fathers the same day (Nov. 12) as discussion began on the third chapter of the document on bishops and diocesan government.

James Francis Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles opposed granting juridical power to national conferences of bishops. Joseph Cardinal Ritter took a firm stand in favor. Albert Cardinal Meyer of Chicago, speaking on behalf of 120 bishops of the United States, took a more middle-of-the-road position. Rather than run the risk of restricting freedom of action for the individual bishop, Cardinal Meyer said, binding force should be accorded only to decisions taken by bishops’ conferences concerning matters referred to them by the Holy See for action.

The schema’s third chapter, on episcopal conferences, came up for discussion as the council Fathers completed their deliberation of the second chapter, which was marked by debate on whether there should be a compulsory retirement age for diocesan bishops.

Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels, one of the four council moderators, led off the day’s discussion of the second chapter by urging the council Fathers to set 75 as the compulsory age of retirement for bishops. This should be a matter of law, he said, not merely a recommendation.

A former member of the old Preparatory Commission on Bishops and Diocesan Government, the 59-year­old Cardinal said:

“When the preparatory commission began its deliberations the members were almost unanimously opposed to any obligatory retirement age for bishops. After the matter had been thoroughly discussed in many meetings, the opinion became almost unanimously in favor of such legislation. This is a point which needs to be determined by law since no one can be expected to be an impartial judge in his own case.

“The supreme law must be the salvation of souls. A real precept with binding force is required. … The decision cannot be left in the hands of the bishops themselves, not even of cardinals. … The text should make it clear that the obligation extends to all bishops, with the exception of the Roman Pontiff, whose office is perpetual in view of the very welfare of the Church.”

The bishop is father, apostle, teacher, priest and ruler in his diocese, the council was told by Bishop Vicente Zazpe of Rafaela, Argentina. He complained that the schema text was silent on all these points.

The appointment of a coadjutor bishop with the right of succession is disagreeable to both the coadjutor and the Ordinary he is named to assist, said Bishop Juan Hervas, Prelate Nullius of Ciudad Real, Spain. He declared that the office of coadjutor is an enemy of peace and should be abolished.

Bishop Franziskus Zak of Sankt Poelten, Austria, recommended that the Holy See discontinue naming titular bishops to extinct Sees. Non-residential bishops should instead be consecrated with the title of “service of the diocese,” as is done in some cases with priests, he said.

In Africa the term “auxiliary” has a disparaging sense, according to Archbishop Raymond Tchidimbo, CSSp, of Conakry, Guinea. It indicates, he said, that anyone thus designated is only second class and incapable of filling the main job. He added that “to the difficulties already existing, there is often added the further problem of racial difference between the residential bishop and his auxiliary.”

Auxiliary Bishop Jacques Le Cordier of Paris recommended that “consideration be given to establishing a new category of bishops, such as ‘residential auxiliary bishops.’ They would function in large cities where a single residential bishop would not be able to meet all the apostolic needs. Each one of them would have full faculties for a determined sector of the diocese.”

Instead of requiring the resignation of aged bishops, said 50-year-old Bishop Thomas V. Cahill of Cairns, Australia, it would be better simply to appoint a bishop administrator.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Reuss of Mainz, Germany, said: “The auxiliary should be appointed for the needs of a See, not for those of a person. He should have the powers of a vicar general in order to be assured of a certain freedom of action.”

At this point the presiding moderator, Giacomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna called for a standing vote on whether to close debate on the chapter. The assembly approved overwhelmingly.

Cardinal Lercaro then turned over the chair to Julius Cardinal Doepfner of Munich for discussion of the third chapter.

Cardinal McIntyre was the first to speak, expressing the fear, as he had done once before, that giving juridical powers to national conferences of bishops would spell trouble for the Church. He said:

“Episcopal conferences can be accepted if they are on a voluntary basis but are to be deplored if they assume a strictly juridical character. The authority given to such a body always tends to take on greater expansion. The obligation imposed by national conferences should not be juridical, but voluntary and free.

“Wanting to give a national conference juridical character could be interpreted as an attack on the Roman curia and thus as an indirect attack on the infallibility of the pope.”

Then Cardinal Meyer, speaking for 120 U.S. bishops, said:

“The question of the binding force of the decisions of the national conference is really the heart and marrow of this chapter and perhaps of the entire schema. It brings up the serious problem of reconciling the evident need for concerted effort with the authority and freedom inherent in the office of individual bishops.

“The text should provide a practical directive to insure a completely free election of the president of the conference. The chief aim of the conference decisions is to assist all the bishops in the spirit of fraternal cooperation. As formulated in the present text, this aim is too juridical and seems to run the risk of restricting freedom of individual action.

“The council must beware of undue intrusion into the government of individual dioceses, lest it set up a new kind of centralization which might be too vast and more complicated than before. …

“Strictly juridical force should be attached only to the decisions of the conference of points referred to it by the Holy See for discussion and decision. Such obligation should be imposed only when this is necessary to secure the fulfillment of the wishes of the supreme authority of the Church. The council should not place such a burden on all national conferences without distinction.”

(Cardinal Meyer’s reference to the selection of the president of a national episcopal conference was discussed later in the day at the U.S. bishops’ press panel. It was noted that the ranking American cardinal automatically presides over the general meetings of the bishops of the United States, while the chairman of the National Catholic Welfare Conference presides over meetings of the NCWC administrative board.

(The Chicago Cardinal in his reference apparently assumed that all meetings of a juridically empowered episcopal conference would be presided over by the ranking prelate. In that case Cardinal Meyer indicated he would want the president to be elected by secret ballot instead of letting the presidency fall to the ranking prelate.)

Cardinal Ritter on gaining the floor expressed his definitely affirmative stand this way:

“National conferences are essential for any effective apostolate in the Church. Attributing juridical binding force to the decisions of these conferences seems necessary. All of us know how frequently unanimity is required in order to achieve a purpose and to provide support for individual bishops — not only in things directly concerned with the salvation of souls, but also in regard to social and moral problems. National conferences with juridical power will promote decentralization because, according to the principle of subsidiarity, when problems are solved on a local level, the central authority has no need to intervene.”

To this Cardinal Ritter added: “National conferences have nothing contrary to the nature of the episcopate. Thus they do not interpose a new body between the bishops and the pope.”

Valerian Cardinal Gracias of Bombay, the only other cardinal to speak on this question, appeared to agree with Cardinal Meyer. “It is better,” he said, “to allow each national conference to decide for itself the kind of obligation to be imposed on its members, with the approval of the Apostolic See.”

Juan Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts of Lima, Peru, suggested that “the text should provide for the possibility of individual national conferences requiring more than a two-thirds majority for matters of unusual importance.” Bishop Michal Klepacz of Lodz, speaking in the name of the Bishops of Poland attending the council, said: “We should omit the reference in the text to national conferences increasing the prestige of bishops before civil governments and non-Catholics.”

The Polish Bishop further suggested that provision should be made for the president of a conference to act as an apostolic delegate, “especially in circumstances where it is important that this office be held by someone with first-hand knowledge of the situations and problems.”

The chapter under discussion is made up of eight articles (Articles 17 to 24 of the schema) with four headings: The Organization of the Conference, The Government of the Conference, The Decisions of the Conference, and International Cooperation between National Episcopal Conferences.

The introductory article, after counseling the bishops of a country to organize a conference, gives four reasons: to enable all bishops to profit from the experience of others; to eliminate the diversity of government between dioceses; to strengthen ecclesiastical discipline; and to increase the prestige of bishops in the eyes of government authorities and non-Catholics.

The two headings on organization and government of conferences more or less describe the organization and government of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in the United States.

The part most under dispute was the third, which treats of the decisions of the conference.

The articles covered under this heading are summarized as follows:

Article 22. Without prejudice to Article 24, the decisions of the bishops lawfully assembled in national conferences are to be accepted and executed with all due reverence by individual bishops, in order to strengthen unity and promote the common welfare.

Article 23. Should a bishop in a particular case have serious reasons for not complying in his diocese with the decisions of the conference, he should previously notify the president of the conference in writing.

Article 24. Provided they have been lawfully adopted by a two-thirds majority and have been reviewed by the Holy See, the decisions of a national episcopal conference bind individual bishops juridically only in the following cases:

(a) Special matters which, either by common law or by the special mandate of the Apostolic See, have been turned over to the national conferences for discussion and decision;

(b) Important public statements to be made in the name of the national episcopal conference;

(c) Matters affecting the entire nation to be treated with the civil government;

(d) Whenever the importance of the matter demands concerted action by all the bishops and a two-thirds majority of the bishops present and voting decides that the decisions should be so enforced.

Under the fourth heading of the chapter, collaboration on an international scale between national episcopal conferences is encouraged in the interests of the common good.

In their respective speeches, Cardinal Meyer favored only (a) of the above summary, whereas Cardinal Ritter favored (a), (b), (c) and (d). The substantial difference between the two positions was that under Cardinal Ritter’s proposal the bishops themselves could raise problems to be given a juridical force, while under Cardinal Meyer’s, the initiative would come from outside the national conference itself.

It was revealed in the American press panel meeting that the collecting of names for Cardinal Meyer’s statement was done informally, and that there was no canvass for support after a comparative reading of the three positions of the three American Cardinals.

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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